Army chief Aviv Kohavi vowed on Thursday that the deaths of two officers on Wednesday night, in a case of so-called friendly fire apparently following a misunderstanding, would be thoroughly investigated.
Retired major general Noam Tibon would lead a probe, alongside another to be conducted by Military Police, who are required to open an investigation into every soldier’s death.
Kohavi also called for an immediate halt to all non-critical activities throughout the Israel Defense Forces in order to discuss the recent events.
According to the commander of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, on Wednesday night two patrols from the elite Egoz Unit set out from the shooting range next to the Nabi Musa base in the Jordan Valley, separately and unaware of one another, in order to find a person who had stolen night-vision equipment from the base the day before and to prevent further thefts.
One patrol consisted of three company commanders and a soldier, while the second was an officer acting alone. Other officers on the base were informed of the two patrols, but they did not know about each other, Fuchs told reporters on Thursday.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the group of four commandos, using night vision capabilities, spotted the lone officer and believed he was an armed suspect.
They approached him and as they got within close range, he noticed them as well with his own night-vision capabilities.
Believing he had come upon a group of armed suspects, the officer apparently opened fire first, killing the two officers — Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar — before realizing that they were fellow IDF servicemen, according to the preliminary probe.
This contradicted the military’s initial report that Aharon and Elharar’s group had fired their guns into the air before the officer shot at them.
Fuchs said that many details of the incident were still being examined. He also stressed that this was still an initial assessment and that the issue of who fired first would be investigated more thoroughly by Military Police.
Asked if this accident was caused by a recent contentious change to IDF open-fire protocols, which allowed soldiers to use deadly force to prevent the frequent thefts from military bases, Fuchs denied a connection, since the officer saw that the group he fired at were holding weapons and believed his life to be in danger.
“It doesn’t matter if the rules of engagement were stricter or looser. This was a decision made in seconds, in less than a second,” Fuchs said.
Fuchs said the two groups didn’t have radios — which may have contributed to the deadly confusion — and called for help on their cellphones.
He described the two fallen officers as “incredible company commanders,” each of whom was expected to have a military career.
Elharar, 26, was set to begin a part-time university program while staying in the military, while Aharon, 28, was scheduled to be promoted next summer, either to a high position within the Egoz Unit or to the Golani Brigade where he would serve as a deputy battalion commander, Fuchs said.
Visiting the Nabi Musa base, IDF Chief of Staff Kohavi sent his condolences to the officers’ families and promised to investigate the incident “rigorously and to learn lessons” from it.
“The incident last night was incredibly serious and deeply upsetting. Preserving human life is at the top of our priorities,” Kohavi said.
“We must do whatever is in our power to prevent incidents like this,” he added.
Earlier on Thursday, IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav said that in addition to consoling the families of the officers who were killed, the military would be compassionate toward the officer who mistakenly killed them.
“We will need to embrace the officer, to take care of him, to show that we are protecting him. He, of course, did this accidentally, resulting in the deaths of his friends,” Kochav said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed his condolences to the families of the fallen officers, promising a thorough investigation.
“The IDF is in the midst of a comprehensive investigation, and we will do everything to ensure that a tragedy like this does not repeat itself,” Gantz said in a statement.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also consoled the families, saying their loved ones had “devoted the best years of their lives to the security of Israel and the defense of the homeland.”
“The entire people of Israel mourns their passing,” he added.
The deaths came a week after two IAF pilots were killed in a helicopter crash in the sea off the coast of Haifa.
Elharar was due to be buried on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at the military cemetery in Kiryat Malachi, and Aharon’s funeral was scheduled for 4:15 p.m. at the military plot in Gan Yavne, the military said.